For millennia childbirth was a mystery akin to death and just as unpredictable. Children were a blessing from God, and childlessness was seen as an affliction that could be remedied only by divine intervention. Today, prospective parents may exercise far more control over the reproductive process, but medical advancements bring with them a host of ethical quandaries. In Dignitas Personae  (December 2008), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith offers moral instruction on reproductive ethics, but the very technical nature of these questions, together with the strong pressures exerted by the medical industry, still leaves couples bewildered. Here is an opportunity for pastoral leaders to reach out with sensitivity and compassion, ever mindful of the ultimate role God plays in our creation.
The longing for a child is an ancient theme found throughout the Bible. Think of Hannah, despondent before the miraculous birth of Samuel, or Sarah, greeting the news of her impending pregnancy with a skeptical, world-weary laugh. The anguish these women knew is manifest today in the thousands of couples who seek assistance from the rapidly growing fertility industry. The goal of helping couples to conceive is a laudable one, but the fertility industry is moving far beyond its original purpose, pursuing conception with seemingly little concern for the moral cost. The birth of octuplets to a single mother with six other children earlier this year may be an extreme example of the industry’s excess, but there are other troubling signs. At the Fertility Institute in Los Angeles, for example, couples can now choose their child’s sex and eye color. News reports have greeted these developments with appropriate skepticism, a sign that human intuition may ultimately serve as a check on genetic experimentation. Yet it should not take such extreme cases to spark a moral debate.
Unlike countries such as Italy, in the United States fertility clinics are largely unregulated, and the rapid pace of technology suggests further growth. Fertility clinics in the United States are already home to over 500,000 frozen embryos, and the numbers are likely to swell, spurred by an industry that profits handsomely from expensive procedures. Most frozen embryos are left over from in vitro fertilization, the procedure by which an egg is combined with sperm in a laboratory setting. Only a select number of fertilized eggs are implanted in the mother’s womb; the rest are stored, some for future use. The vast majority remain frozen, however, with both couples and clinics reluctant to destroy them outright—an implicit recognition, perhaps, that they are more than just cells in a petri dish.
The moral dilemmas raised by childbirth do not end with conception. With little controversy or moral discussion, genetic screening has become a regular part of prenatal care. As a result, the abortion of children with genetic disorders has become frighteningly routine. According to studies, just over 90 percent of children in the United States diagnosed in utero with Down syndrome are aborted, a practice the columnist George F. Will has called “eugenics by abortion.” Slowly and quietly our society is being diminished, driven by the too widespread belief that medical science is the ultimate arbiter of these grave decisions.
To curtail practices that are so widespread calls for vigorous evangelization as well as regulation. Indeed, the rapid growth of medical technologies presents a serious challenge for the7 church’s teaching on life itself. Is every new life a blessing, one to be welcomed no matter what form it may take? The church rightly calls upon us to answer with an emphatic yes. But how far should one go to bring life about? Dignitas Personae reiterates church teaching that the creation of human life properly belongs to the marital act. Yet if we judge by the number of frozen embryos in the United States, the church’s message is not being heard. The widespread use of genetic screening is an even more alarming sign that the church’s call to care for the frail and vulnerable is going unheeded.
Couples facing infertility or the challenges of caring for a disabled child may understandably feel isolated and overwhelmed. In our culture, it is not surprising that they look to science for assistance. The church can serve as an important ally in guiding them to a life-affirming decision, whether it is ethical fertility treatment, adoption or long-term disability care [see page 13 in this issue]. Perhaps the most effective witness pastoral counselors can offer is simply to listen, always attentive to signs of the Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, at work. Scientific advancements have reduced infant mortality and enhanced life for children in myriad ways. Yet medicine cannot alleviate all of life’s suffering, and one must be wary of scientific attempts to shape life at its earliest stages. The Creator’s words from Jeremiah still resonate: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”